Six Simple Rules: A book review by Bob Morris

Six SimpleSix Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated
Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

How organizations can create more value with better management of complexity by abandoning both hard and soft approaches

I agree with Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman: “Underlying the management of today’s organizations is a set of beliefs and practices – the hard and soft approaches – that, given the new complexity of business, have become obsolete.” Worse yet, these approaches have become self-defeating. Briefly, the hard approach “rests on two fundamental assumptions. The first is the belief that structures, processes, and systems have a direct and predictable effect on performance, and as long as managers pick the right one, they will get the performance they want…The second assumption is that the human factor is the weakest and least reliable link of the organization and that it is essential to control people’s behavior through the proliferation of rules to specify their actions and through financial incentives linked to carefully designed metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to motivate them to perform in the way the organization wants them to.

As for the soft approach, it views an organization as “a set of interpersonal relationships and the sentiments that govern them. Good performance is the by-product of good interpersonal relationships. What people do is predetermined by personal traits, so-called psychological needs and mind-sets. In other words, to change behavior at work, change the mind-set (or change the people).”

What do Morieux and Tollman suggest? They wrote this book to explain how and why organizations can create more value with better management of complexity by abandoning both hard and soft approaches. What then? They propose what they characterize as “smart simplicity,” both a mind-set and a methodology based on six simple rules that can create situations in which “each person’s autonomy — in using judgment energy — is made more effective by the rest of the group, and by which people put their autonomy in the service of the group. Morieux and Tollman duly acknowledge that these rules are easy to identify but can be immensely difficult to follow with precision, cohesion, and efficiency.

As I read the Introduction and thought about the rules, I was again reminded of several great teams that include the Disney animators who created classics such as Pinocchio and Bambi, the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, and the engineers who collaborated on aircraft design at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works.” Morieux and Tollman could well have had teams such as these in mind when observing that the first three rules “use the group effect to give people’s autonomy an advantage in best using their energy and judgment, while the last three rules impel people to put their autonomy in the best service of the group.” Following these rules can indeed help those in almost any organization (whatever its size and nature may be) to manage complexity effectively with a combination of autonomy and cooperation at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. It should be noted that the six rules have a scientific basis, as Morieux and Tollman also explain in the Introduction.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of their coverage.

o Smart Simplicity (Pages 16-20)
o Look for Anomalies (36-38)
o How the Hard Approach Gets in the Way of Understanding Performance (42-46)
o How the Soft Approach Gets in the Way of Understanding Performance (46-49)
o How Integrators Are Different, and, Creating Integrators in Existing Work Roles (57-62)
o Transforming Managers into Integrators (72-83)
o What Power Is — and What It Isn’t (86-89)
o The Manager’s Role in Increasing Power: Creating New Stakes (91-92)
o Harnessing Power to Face Complexity (100-106)
o Three Misconceptions about Roles and Objectives (112-114)
o Setting Rich Objectives: Framing Roles for Overall Results (117-122)
o Three Reinforcing Mechanisms (122-133)
o Greater Accountability, Less Complicatedness (133-134)
o Strategic Alignment: A Trap of Complicatedness (137-142)
o Four Ways to Extend the Shadow of the Future (142-148)
o Make Those Who Don’t Cooperate Bear the Cost (168-170)
o Institutionalize the Six Rules: A Three-Step Process (182-189)

In the Conclusion, Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman provide and explain a three-step process by which to “move away from the reliance on the hard and soft approaches and toward the use of the six simple rules. Use it when you consider engaging in organization redesign, restructuring, operating model redefinition, cultural transformation, productivity improvement, or cost reduction programs.” The details of the process are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but I am comfortable sharing one observation, that all of the recommendations and words of caution as well as the rules themselves are simple to understand. Simplicity is imperative to the ultimate success of any organizational initiative such as those just mentioned, especially given the velocity and extent of complexity that increase each day.

I urge those who share my high regard for this book to check out another: Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson and published by Harvard Business Review Press.

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